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Saddam Hussein’s ‘Republic of Fear’ used death threats. Trump’s version defames the election and intimidates GOP. | Trudy Rubin

America isn’t Iraq. GOP leaders must stand up to Trump’s threats to free elections and to them.

Gabriel Sterling, voting system implementation manager with the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, speaks during a news conference at the Georgia state Capitol building in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020.
Gabriel Sterling, voting system implementation manager with the Georgia Secretary of State's Office, speaks during a news conference at the Georgia state Capitol building in Atlanta on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020.Read moreHYOSUB SHIN / MCT

This is a column about American cowards and an American hero, and what their behavior tells us about the future of democracy in this country — and its reputation abroad.

First, let us look at the cowards, the congressional Republicans so fearful of President Donald Trump that they are unwilling to call out his rejection of a peaceful transfer of power, the bedrock of American democracy.

Just 27 of 247 congressional Republicans in the House and Senate were willing to acknowledge that Joe Biden was president-elect, in a December poll by the Washington Post. They were too terrified of Trump to reject his lying rants about election fraud. Or to denounce the threats his fans are making against election officials of both parties around the country.

Unlike many of those fans, GOP legislators know Biden has won. Yet, they are acting as if they live in Belarus or Russia or China, where opposing an autocrat gets you jailed or poisoned, or in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, where it got you killed.

» READ MORE: Victory for U.S. democracy: courts serve law, not a president | Trudy Rubin

“Republic of Fear” is what they called Saddam ’s Iraq, and despite the huge differences between his murderous tactics and Trump’s, the term seems apt for the bubble of fear in which GOP leaders live. Unless congressional Republicans bust that bubble soon, the American republic will face a grim next few years.

“Every single [congressional Republican] knows it’s over,” I was told by Charlie Dent, a former GOP congressman from Pennsylvania. “The failure to say so is out of fear, that’s what’s so depressing. They are afraid of being primaried, or that Trump will set his base against them. Trump senses fear in people and he will exploit that.”

What is especially shameful about GOP cowardice is that it enables Trump to undermine faith in the most basic element of democracy — free and fair elections. Since the election, surveys have shown that 70% of Republicans believe the lies about a rigged election, which will undermine the legitimacy of a Biden presidency from the getgo. This, at a time when bipartisan efforts are critically needed to deal with a raging pandemic, a desperate economy, and the dicey project of vaccinating the nation.

From Georgia to Pennsylvania to Michigan and beyond, death threats to election officials and ordinary election workers have escalated, egged on by Trump’s false claims at rallies and on Twitter. (Such threats, often calling for “traitors” to be hung, or depicting a noose, have trickled down to reporters, as in the email I and a colleague received that railed: “Both of you should be tried and hung … when you least expect it.”) One Trump lawyer, Joe diGenova, called for the former top U.S. cybersecurity official, Chris Krebs, to be shot.

I asked Kanan Makiya, a noted Iraqi American intellectual who wrote the 1989 book Republic of Fear about Saddam’s Iraq, how he viewed the fear factor here compared with what he saw in Iraq before he quit the country. Now a professor emeritus at Brandeis University, Makiya mused: “Fear in Iraq was for your life and for torture. Great dictators — Stalin, Hitler, Saddam — were capable of building organizations. Trump doesn’t have [his personal] militias, and he is too focused on himself to build organizations.”

Makiya noted, however, the danger that localized gun-toting militias might present if Trump continued his fraud rants after Jan. 20 — and the importance of local GOP officials who stood up against Trump claims.

(I’d note that GOP-appointed state and local judges also upheld rule of law, helping to toss out dozens of frivolous election lawsuits brought by Trumpsters. And, on Tuesday, the Supreme Court denied a bid by Trump allies to overturn results in Pennsylvania.”)

“This country rests on the Constitution and elections. It’s the glue that holds the whole thing together,” Makiya said. “If there were a [national] Republican leader brave enough to stand up, he might break the ice.”

Dent echoes that thought, saying, “If 100 of them today said, ‘Game’s over,’ it would have an enormous effect on the base.”

Yet so far, GOP leaders in the House and Senate, and many at state level, have refused to criticize Trump’s tsunami of election lies — or the violence they inspire.

Which brings me to the GOP hero, who said the words national Republican leaders are too weak to utter.

Many of you may have seen the impromptu news conference critique of the president a week ago by a top Republican election official in Georgia, Gabriel Sterling: “This is elections,” he cried out, passionately. “This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this. It is too much.”

» READ MORE: Trump's not staging a coup, but is attacking U.S. democracy I Trudy Rubin

Sterling was infuriated at the violent threats from Trump backers against him and Georgia’s top state officials that have required them to have police protection — and at the threat to a young election worker, complete with a noose, calling on him to be “hung for treason.”

“Mr. President, stop inspiring people to commit potential violence. Someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right,” Sterling charged.

But one brave local official in Georgia is insufficient to expose Trump’s Republic of Fear as an assault on democracy — and a fantasy imposed on his public. Perhaps GOP congressional leaders will finally show some backbone after state electors cast their votes Dec. 14. Otherwise, they will go down in history as cowards who bowed to Trump’s antidemocratic whims.